An honest chat with Elle Kaye: life as a millennial taxidermist
Young, bright and brimming with energy, Elle Kaye might not strike you as the typical taxidermist. For the past seven years, the 27-year-old has worked hard to grow her own business preserving wild animals through the practise of taxidermy, with a special emphasis on birds. A not uncontroversial discipline, it was fascinating to sit down with someone deeply passionate about this unusual craft. In the years since graduating from her degree in Fine Arts and Sculpture, Elle has grappled with many of the misconceptions around her unique profession.
To this day, taxidermy is often characterised by grim notions of the Victorian practise, which involved going out to hunt animals for display in aristocratic homes. Elle is keen to challenge this unhelpful legacy and shed light on how taxidermy has evolved in the 21st century. ‘I never use animals that haven’t died a natural death’, she explains. Using only those that have naturally passed away, her work is a painstakingly laborious restoration of animals to their former glory. Taking a traditionalist approach, Elle mounts the animal on a simple stand in a natural pose. ‘My aim is to make it look like a bird again,’ she ventures, referring to her particular love of birdlife. Occasionally, the bird might have a natural ‘blemish’, such as a missing patch of feathers or a scar. Elle doesn’t strive to hide these flaws but will leave them as a tribute to the real life lived: ‘After all, who doesn’t have imperfections?’
What drives Elle’s work?
These models are still an objectification of wild creatures, some might say. Elle argues that there is a fine line between being a taxidermist and a puppeteer: ‘I’m not using the animal for personal gain or to create something which satirises the animal.’ Transforming animals into flamboyant works of art is not the goal. Saddened by the thought of letting a creature go to waste, she advocates that taxidermy can inform a greater educational purpose. Deeply passionate about understanding animals on both a scientific and relational level, Elle believes that taxidermy enables both anatomical study but also encourages a deeper appreciation of the animal and its life lived. Restoring animals is what drives Elle’s work although there is nothing macabre or statuary about it: ‘When someone reacts by thinking it’s a living creature, that’s a big compliment because I know that I’ve done my job.’
The animal models captivate a varied audience. A non profit organisation for disabled children is situated next to her workshop and they have come by in the past to look at the birds: ‘The children can reach out and touch a real barn owl. It’s a platform to educate and give them access to these amazing creatures.’ They are fascinated by the creatures and find the interaction very calming. ‘Even when dead, (the animals) possess a magical, transient quality. If you’re open minded about taxidermy as a learning experience, it can be enormously beneficial.’ Schools have invited Elle to speak about translating a passion for animals into an entrepreneurial career in taxidermy. Inspired pupils will frequently reach out to learn more, captivated by this close interaction with creatures beyond their everyday. For many of them, it catalyses a scientific interest in animal biology. ‘It’s so heartwarming and meaningful to have positive affirmation from the younger generation.’
A recent commission presented a unique and especially meaningful opportunity. An elderly couple living up in the Hebrides often encountered a kingfisher as they sat by a stream near their home. After one of them passed away, the kingfisher also disappeared. The gentleman reached out to Elle to see if she could make a model. Every morning, he now comes downstairs and sees the kingfisher, both as a reminder of his wife and – as he put it – of the pure goodness to be found in the natural world. Elle found the experience incredibly moving: ‘The natural form is one of life’s greatest joys.’
Dealing with death
Inevitably, working closely with death must bear emotional toll. Does she form a personal connection with the animals? ‘When I first started, it felt so intimate and was heart rending at times.’ When the birds come in from a trauma, Elle can often determine the cause of death. Dealing with shattered skulls, haemorrhages and cancer, taxidermy is not for the faint hearted. ‘I really absorb a sense that the animal is now in my hands and it’s a big responsibility.’ Despite the very visceral reality of working with death, Elle is often overwhelmed by the animals’ beauty. When working with another taxidermist several years ago, a baby giraffe was stillborn, and Elle had the opportunity to help work on it. This proved an emotional task. ‘There was a sense of it being unreal. I wanted to really take in the animal and cherish it.’ She reasons that art is very a personal thing and her creative peers will often draw on memory and trauma in their own work. As a taxidermist, this is extracted from the animal itself, something which Elle sees as a huge honour.
Small though it be, the taxidermy community is not particularly close knit and – with the exception of some collaborative projects – Elle’s work is mostly carried out alone. Working solo for long hours leaves a lot of time for reflection, which can prove lonely and emotionally intense when handling creatures often very damaged by the world outside. As a creative, she has a powerful imagination which can lead to lucid, unsettling dreams of breaking bones and injury. Despite this, there is a poetic quality to being alone with the animals. Without distractions, she has space to wrestle with the sense that life is short and – as with the animals – anything can happen. At first, this connection made it hard to see pieces go but Elle also recognised that her work should engage viewers and encourage an interest in wildlife. ‘I try my utmost to do justice to the animal itself.’ Often working with tiny 0.1mm forceps and magnifying glasses, she enjoys seeing the intricate restoration unfold: ‘It is a really nice feeling to do all the finishing work, to lay the feathering tracks and see all the fine details come together.’
Acknowledging that preserving wildlife is an opportunity to inspire the next generation of biologists, Elle raises the argument that without taxidermy there would be no record of specimens. It is also a key method of documenting endangered species and a chance to study animals that have sadly already become extinct. Hungry to better understand the anatomy of different species which come into her workshop, Elle has become an avid researcher. ‘Sometimes I’ll be holding a little bird and wonder how it even flies. The tiny wing bones seem so fragile.’ Doing a part time degree in animal biology and conservation has greatly expanded her understanding as a practitioner. There have certainly been some memorable moments. On one occasion, when working at another taxidermist’s shop, a full male lion was brought in after passing away in a zoo. Not your typical Tuesday in the office then: a cup of tea in one hand, the other feeling out the inside of a lion’s mouth. ‘When do you get to do that in life?’ Elle asks. She’s quite right. ‘It’s an amazing privilege to be so close to these phenomenal creatures.’
Dealing with critics
However, life as a taxidermist is not always plain sailing. At exhibitions, Elle will detect a ripple of disgust going around the room and overhear people make condemning comments about the models. She doesn’t begrudge them for any natural ignorance. After all, taxidermy is not very common so what could they really know about it? It is only frustrating when critics refuse to engage in a dialogue around her work. ‘They immediately assume a malicious intent.’ There must be someone to act as advocate and Elle is up to to the task. Facing aggressive online trolls can be burdensome but catalysing the conversation around taxidermy is worth it. In the face of so much vitriol, one could be forgiven for staying mum. ‘You can either give up and refuse to deal with it. But then why shut down the voices of those who are curious and open minded?’ As Elle puts it, she flipped a switch and just got on with it, rebuking old dictums about the ghoulishness of having ‘dead animals’ in the home. She finds ‘dead’ an unhelpful term. The animal models do not possess any dead qualities – after all, they are not simply stuffed and styled.
How are taxidermy models created?
It turns out that very little stuffing is involved in taxidermy. The animal’s skin is carefully removed before going through a series of preservation ‘pickle baths’. This process changes the properties of the skin from a decaying organic material by breaking down the enzymes and often takes up to a week. The next stage is when Elle’s sculptor training comes in! After taking meticulous measurements, the shape of the animal is hand-modelled in great detail out of polyurethane foam. A very dense material, it is ideal for carving out muscular definition. This process requires keen spacial awareness, observational understanding of anatomy and high artistic skill as the animal is then translated into an ultra realistic model. ‘Without sounding arrogant, I don’t think it is possible to be a taxidermist unless you can sculpt’, Elle tells me, ‘The two disciplines are synonymous.’ Occasionally, the skull and wing bones will be used to help rebuild structure.
Why choose taxidermy?
No-one can deny that the pursuit of a career in taxidermy is an unconventional path. In the UK, there are approximately 30 taxidermists practising at a professional level, many of whom fall into Generation Jones. What would lead a millennial Fine Arts student to develop a fascination with preserving dead wildlife? Like many children, Elle was enchanted by the animal world from a young age, which inspired early dreams of becoming a vet. It wasn’t until later on at high school that it became clear she was a born creative, more gifted with words and her hands than the sciences. Although she still harboured a keen interest in the anatomy of animals, Elle realised that she needed a visceral, tangible interaction with animals. Craving a more imaginative path, she opted to study fine art and sculpture at Loughborough. With its strong emphasis on using traditional techniques, this was the perfect choice to propel Elle towards taxidermy. Encouraged by a tutor, who opined that taxidermy might be the perfect hybrid of working with both sculpture and animals, she hit the books. The library didn’t hold anything which dealt specifically with taxidermy and even though the Victorians certainly churned out a large body of content on preservation, their methods were long outdated. Drawing an understanding from books on pickling, salting and preserving vegetables, Elle pieced together her own clear cut technique which involved less harmful chemicals. Does she remember her first taxidermy model? ‘I didn’t have access to exotic species so I went to the local pet shop to ask if they had any deceased animals.’ You can probably imagine the look on the shop owner’s face. ‘They had frozen mice or rats for big boas which I used.’
By graduation three years later, Elle was very well versed in taxidermy and decided to make a profession of it. Today, she has freezers full of peacocks, flamingos, parrots, owls and other animals donated by zoos, aviaries and wildlife centres. By her own admission, she went into taxidermy blindly but full of passion: the business was founded ‘riding on faith’, spurred on by some encouraging sales during her degree show. With the steady rise of maximalist animal trends throughout fashion and interior design, some have accused Elle of exploiting a trend. Clearly, this is unjustified. Not only has she been pursuing taxidermy for years long gone, it is very much a passion project. ‘Artist life can be volatile, it’s very brave and a bit crazy,’ she observes. Only recently has Elle been able to focus on taxidermy full time, previously working a host of part time jobs to fund her professional dream. She feels that many of her peers are settling for careers just to make the big buck, although is fair to point out that people value different things. By no means naive, Elle simply recognises that money is not the only form of currency. Life as a taxidermist gives her happiness, creative and intellectual fulfilment: ‘This is the time to work hard and really hone my craft.’ I ask if working closely around death inspires a sense of carpe diem? Absolutely, is the response. She is frequently reminded of life’s transience, which in turn strengthens the determination to do what she loves. For Elle – as long she stays afloat – art takes precedence over making big money for now. ‘After all, who wants to be the richest man in the graveyard?’
A future for taxidermy?
Opportunities for business growth are now starting to surface. Among clients, Elle counts film studios which require animal models. A medieval film, for instance, will request braces of pheasants or hares; a military project might shoot a scene with a dead horse. The Harry Potter studio tour has also come calling. What is Elle’s own vision for taxidermy? ‘Museum taxidermy is where I would like to head’, she says. ‘It would be amazing to work on dioramas, for example a huge scale depiction of a lion chasing antelope.’ Museum taxidermists have obtained true mastery and their work stands on a timeline of taxonomy, so understandably it is up there as a career goal. Elle also envisions taxidermy being taught in schools. Is that mad? Not necessarily. ‘Doing dissections in biology lessons is where people inclined towards medicine will often get their moment of inspiration,’ she notes. In similar fashion, taxidermy invites close study of anatomy. We also agree that in a world which sees climate change wreak increasing havoc on the natural world, too little is being done to raise the next generation of wildlife experts. Pioneers like Elle are actively instigating this change – albeit via a somewhat less conventional route.
To view Elle’s website and see more of her work, please click here.
Title image credit: bbc.co.uk, photography: Igor Emmerich